Keeping Your Script Focused with a Dramatic Question

This article from Candace Kearns Read gives some insight into structuring your story around a dramatic question and a central idea in order to help your story stay focused and meaningful:

When writing for the screen, it’s often difficult to decide which situations and scenes to put into the story and which to leave out. This is when the work of dramatizing must be done, through raising a dramatic question and clarifying a central idea.

Never actually stated in the actual script, this is a question which the writer raises in the audience’s minds. Sometimes this question is what makes the audience wonder, “Will she get her man?” or “Will he destroy the bad guy?” These types of situations are usually found in genre films such as action and comedies. Character-driven stories and those based on true stories are often less obvious.

The Dramatic Question Can be Subtle

In autobiographical stories, the dramatic question is usually more subtle. Often it is something more like, “How will he overcome those obstacles to happiness?” (My Left Foot) or “How will everything turn out?” (Hope and Glory.) Once there is a a sense of what the dramatic question is, the writer can then keep everything relevant. This means that the writer asks how connected to the dramatic question each scene is. Anything that does not directly speak to it gets tossed into the scraps folder.

If the dramatic question is, “How will she get away from him?” and there are twenty or so anecdotes in the writer’s mind related to a story about the emancipation of a daughter from her father, the writer can pick and choose only those scenes which raise the question, and which relate in some way to the central idea of her struggle for freedom.

If someone wants to write a story about their struggle with self-destructive tendencies, for instance, perhaps the central dramatic question, hooking in the audience and making them wonder how things will turn out, could be “How will he learn his own self-worth?” From there, one can choose scenes that show his growth and challenge his notions of low self-esteem.

The Central Idea is a Thematic Statement

Along with the formation of a dramatic question comes the development of a central idea. This can be thought of as a theme, or spine, to the story. It has inherent dramatic conflict, and can serve as a glue to stick all of the story elements on. Rather than being phrased as a question, this is more of a statement. For example, “Self-destructiveness is a product of low self-esteem,” could be the central idea for the story mentioned above.

The central idea can then be used to help choose which scenes to leave in and which to leave out. In order to show that a character was self-destructive for years, there’s no need to recount all the excessive partying, near death experiences or criminal activities. A few well-chosen sequences, showing the character going on one or two long, destructive binges, perhaps wrecking his car, or having to hock a valuable item to get out of a gambling debt, will be effective to convey the extent of what happened. If this is based on a true story, the exact details of what happened are not what matters. It’s the emotional impact that needs to be conveyed, and often an imagined or augmented event can have more of an effect than a straight retelling.

When trying to focus the lens of a story, it’s best to work hard on clarifying the dramatic question and central idea. These will form the spine along which all of the scenes can adhere, and the question of which scenes to leave in and which to leave out can be answered with ease.

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